New comics day is for the new.

Phonogram #1 (of 6)

This book wants to impress you. Very badly. Oh, it flails - you’ll half expect droplets of sweat to abruptly bead upon the surface of any one of these 32 b&w pages and drift upward into your eyes via some queer gravitational inversion, perhaps somehow prompted by the time travel inherent to writing creative works and having them published, perspiration privately paused and only later resumed for public pooling. Phonogram screams for attention. In a way, this is fitting - the book does involve a surface-aware lead character who loves to show off, a character claimed as an iconic extension of the fellow providing most of the book’s supplementary/explanatory material, writer Kieron Gillen. But the relative fitting-in of such wet marks needn’t excuse their presence entirely.

I kind of liked the book, almost in spite of everything . There’s a variety of ways to look at this debut issue, published by Image for $3.50, but the initial whole looks a bit tepid from whatever direction. Gillen, eager to aid the curious reader in their apparent quest for explanation, presents a Statement of Intent in the obligatory bonus section toward the back, a terribly lofty-sounding thing detailing the book’s three-layered approach.

We first have the body, the book’s fantastical setting and concept: David Kohl, painfully hip Phonomancer (one who grasps and wields the magic of music), finds himself facing the wrath of ‘The Goddess,’ a powerful being that temporarily manifests herself inside the corporeal form of singer/songwriter Scout Niblett and demands Kohl take on some sort of important mission in penance for his wicked ways with the ladies. Perfunctory, but a skeleton something interesting might eventually hang on. Then we have the brain, the story’s immersion in authentic music journalism and criticism, which manifests primarily in Kohl’s caption-based narration:

In those vacuum post-Britpop days that marked the end of the great British indie experiment (birth: “Spiral Scratch EP”, the Buzzcocks. Death: “K”, Kula Shaker), there was space for all manner of leftist ideas to flourish. One of the infecting poppies - or weeds - among the rubble was this distinct brand of pop-feminism. It’s a woman-enhancing positive-role-modelling hair-clip dyke-friendly yes-I-like-dance-music-I’ve-got-a-Le-Tigre album melange. It’s got precisely nothing to do with me.”

So really it’s ‘John Constantine, music correspondent.’ And it doesn’t extend much beyond that in this issue, though I certainly presume that Gillen has some sort of deeper purpose in mind, given the concept and all, for what’s effective right now as simple environment dressing. Part three is the soul, the adorned autobiographical element of the book, something Gillen dubs “Automythology… reaching for the iconic in our lives - both good and bad - and transubstantiating it into the immortal.” Thus, we’re assured that Kohl is (and is not) Gillen in the way that Ziggy Stardust and Slim Shady are (and are not) David Bowie and Marshall Mathers. The character of Kohl can hardly be accused of idealization - he’s dismissive, grindingly pretentious, prone to empty posturing, and willing to walk around as the mystic protagonist of a comic book with a Superman t-shirt on (oh how droll). Lord knows I like a good ‘somewhat unsavory alter ego of the author walks around a reality-based world of heightened affect’ yarn - that was roughly every third column I wrote back when I did the weekly thing, after all - but as of now it’s not accomplishing much beyond providing a more authentic than average backdrop for some eminently familiar plot and character beats.

All of this is meant to “express the entirety of how pop music works. Music is Magic, yes - but to really explain that has to be an act of magic in and of itself. It’s true and it’s not true. It’s so fake that it’s hyperreal. It has to be too much, or else it’s not nearly enough.” At least originality is sworn off - Grant Morrison is cited as an influence, specifically his work with The Invisibles, though I found Flex Mentallo to spring more readily to mind, seeing as how it operates on essentially the same three levels, with the history of superhero comics replacing the pop scene on floor two. If only this book had more of Morrison’s storytelling spark; setting aside all intent, Phonogram reads an awful lot like a typical ‘antihero laid low and set on the path to quasi-redemption’ thing, albeit with plenty of pop music references, a handy glossary even provided among the bonuses.

Still, I kind of liked the book. There’s a few good bits, like Kohl ignoring a girl to play a record over and over again, and some decent narrative framing at work. The dialogue gets a bit cute (at times a lot cute), but the secret inner quavering of the lead character is handled soundly. I think I mostly responded well to how good this story can theoretically get; there’s an awful lot of places to go with Music is Magic, a great multitude of things to say about art and culture and subjectivity - especially when your main character is literally drawing power from tunes. Speaking of drawing, there’s also some decent art from Jamie McKelvie, at times slightly stiff but really coming to life when it needs to, like when Kohl is swung around by his shin in a suddenly all-white room by singer/songwriter Scout Niblett. Not much more to say about it, though, save for that the lettering was nice and I liked the dot tones.

Other bonuses include letters, track listings for tunes listened to during the writing, and other miscellaneous comments. Strange how those back-of-the-book comments work. I strongly doubt my impressions regarding the actual story content of this issue would be much different had Gillen simply remained silent, but the whole deal makes me feel a bit more confident in the series delivering something a little more interesting as it moves along. Maybe I’m just susceptible to magic words. But talk this serious creates a sense of urgency in the reader, a gnawing hope that some of that stuff will spill out into the story, and seep into its cracks. I could use some more kinetic kicks out of this potential energy, and I hope they can be yet converted.